The United States is deeply involved in the politics of the world’s scores of majority-Muslim countries, which in turn occupy a number of the top slots on Washington’s foreign-policy agenda. So why is the U.S. public discourse on the affairs of the Muslim world so heavily dominated by people who have little actual professional training or close familiarity with these countries? Why have the thousands of Americans– academics and others– who have such expertise been so broadly excluded from input into either policy or the mainstream public discussion about policy?
Our country has suffered very badly in recent years– in Iraq, and in many other parts of the world– from the exclusion, marginalization, and suppression of the expertise of the many thousands of Americans who know a lot about the majority-Muslim world.
How different will things be in the new era of President Barack (Hussein) Obama? We still need to wait and see. We need to look at a broad range of indicators about the tenor of public life and the climate of opinion both inside and outside the halls of government before we can find an answer. Inside government, will we once again see the entire team of people working on Arab-Israeli issues made up of people with strong pro-Israeli biases and precious little actual expertise in the affairs of the Arab world? Outside government, will we continue to see the op-ed pages of the major newspapers and the ranks of alleged “experts” on the Middle East paraded on the major t.v. shows dominated by people with similar bias and a similar lack of actual, proven expertise?
There are a few reasons for optimism. One is, of course, the election of Barack Obama himself. He won despite the circulation by his opponents of numerous rumors and attempted “smears” to the effect that he was “a secret Muslim” or “a secret Arab”, and that therefore his election would cause great harm to Israel and to America. Note the unspoken assumption that a person has to be either pro-Israeli or pro-Muslim: That’s polarizing zero-sum thinking at work for you, right there.
Obama and his campaign team overcame those slurs at the ballot-box. That shows that the fear-dominated, zero-sum approach used by his opponents was not ‘bought’ by the majority of those who voted. (Media bookers and think-tank heads around the US: take good note of the American people’s good sense!)
Another reason for optimism is quieter, though it was on good show Tuesday at an excellent program run by the Women’s Foreign Policy Group here in Washington, DC. What was on show was a program the Carnegie Corporation of New York has been running for four years now, which has sought to support the work of American scholars on the Muslim world. Each year, the program has offered “up to $100,000” to 20 scholars, for a total of 80 scholars having been supported in their work so far.
So on Tuesday, the WFPG brought eight of these Carnegie Scholars to Washington DC, and provided an excellent (though necessarily small-scale) show-case for their work. Fwiw, seven of the eight featured scholars were women– some at the mid-career stage, some of them senior scholars.
I was blown away by the quality and depth of these people’s work– and also, by the poised, very effective way they were able to present it.
My immediate thought was: Why do we not see a lot more of people like this in the government, on the op-ed pages of newspapers, and on the t.v. talk shows?
Let me say this again: Poised. Articulate. Knowledgeable. Women (in the main.) With real expertise on important aspects of Muslim society.
Why are these people not showcased, and their expertise not consulted, in most of our national discussions on how our country interfaces with the Muslim world?
Why do we nearly always have the the same-old-same-old lineups of (mainly) white guys, pro-Israelis, continuing to bloviate about whole societies and countries of which, in fact, many of them know very little… and doing so with the name of some big-time Washington think-tank or well-funded elite university program beside their names?
Real area expertise: There is no substitute for this, if our country is to have any hope of minimizing the damage that our continuing blundering around the Muslim world will cause to all of humanity (including ourselves), if nothing changes.
So who were these talented Carnegie Scholars?
Asma Asfaruddin, professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame, who has done ground-breaking work that has identified considerable support in the early Muslim texts for the values of tolerance, consensus, and effective political representation.
Elizabeth Thompson, a historian of the late colonial period in the Middle East. Her presentation focused on what she described as “the first, broadest, constitution-writing gathering ever held in the Middle East”. Baghdad 2004? No, Damascus 1920. It was convened by King Faisal and included participants from throughout the Mashreq, many deeply inspired by Woodrow Wilson; leading Islamic reformer Rashid Ridha was a major participant, contributing many very helpful ideas; even the question of women’s suffrage was discussed… But guess what? The French armies came hurtling into Damascus and that whole democratic experiment was summarily stifled… We need to remember all this stuff here in Washington, DC!
Elora Shehabuddin, professor of humanities and political science at Rice University, talked about the construction of the category of a “moderate” Arab or Muslim in recent US politics… and how this nearly always had to include support for Israel, for US foreign policy, and support for either a neoconservative or neoliberal ideology.
(In the discussion among those three, Asfaruddin noted that a certain facile form of “colonial feminism” had been pursued by many westerners in the Muslim world for a long time now. “Focusing on the need to unveil women has often been a very low-cost substitute for doing anything substantive to improve the lives of women and their families…”)
John Bowen, professor of arts and sciences at Washington University, St. Louis. He gave us a little sampler from the work he’s been doing on the many different patterns of Muslim life (and different patterns of Islamist affiliation) that have emerged in different European countries.
Susan Moeller, a professor of media and international affairs at the University of Maryland who previously worked as a press photographer. Moeller was the only panelist who is not a specialist in some area of Muslim life, and she has only just started her research under the Carnegie Scholars program. (I’m not sure what it is.) But she provided one very helpful vignette, from her early days as a war photographer, that illustrated the point that that there are many editorial filters that, in the MSM, frame and limit what it is that viewers are actually ever allowed to see or hear.
Lila Abu-Lughod, professor of anthropology and gender studies at Columbia. She memorably shared one vignette from some of her extensive field-work in Egypt: She had asked an Egyptian peasant woman she had known for a long time how a dispute about female inheritance might get worked out, and the woman referred to a multiplicity of possible sources for defining and protecting a woman’s rights, including the state’s laws, Egyptian t.v. soap-operas, local tradition, and the rulings of a locally renowned religious scholar. Textured, thought-provoking, and “real”!
Madhavi Sunder a visiting prof at the University of Chicago Law School (so maybe Obama knows her already?) She talked about the empowering effects numerous women in different parts of the Muslim world, including Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Mauretania, and even Iran have experienced from sitting with each other in small groups and undertaking their own careful reading of core Islamic texts as a way to strengthen their ability to engage in the public discussions in their countries on core issues in family law. She noted that women from these Sisters in Islam groups in Morocco succeeded, in 2004, in winning a new, more favorable Islamic Family Law… One conclusion: “Reading the Kor’an in Kuala Lumpur may actually be more momentous than reading Lolita in Tehran.”
Sunder also called directly on Obama to “express solidarity with these existing reform movements in the Muslim world rather than joining in calls to ‘save’ Muslim women and using their circumstances as a justification for invasion and war.” A very hearty amen to that!
Farzaneh Milani, a professor of literature at the University of Virginia talked about the importance of Freedom of Movement (broadly defined) for women’s full development and social integration, and about many ironic and apparently contradictory ways in which this bundle of freedoms is granted or withheld in contemporary Iran. She noted, inter alia, that 64% of the students admitted to Iranian universities are women; the number of novels published by women authors in Tehran has increased 13-fold over the past decade, to 370 new works last year; and now Iran has a woman as the ‘national poet’. She concluded: “Yes, there is repression and gender exclusion from the highest offices in the land. But a complex mixture of achievements and drawbacks mark women’s lives in Iran today. All of them need to be taken into account.”
… I do have my own set of theories as to why voices like these ones are not heard or included nearly enough in the policy discourse and policy making of this country. Part of it has to do with the deliberate, long-pursued suppression of the voices of all who “dare” to question the policies of this or that Israeli government. Part to do with the twinned campaign the most ideological pro-Israel networks here have pursued to stuff government departments, think tanks, and op-ed rosters with their own ideological soul-mates…. But in the case of the women among these scholars there is another factor at work, too: A systematic bias in many reaches of society that devalues the work and expertise of women, and the continued, steady upward rolling of the male professional elevator in all the relevant fields.
After all, if a TV booker calls in the evening, how many women have a wife at home to do the housework and look after the kids while they run off to appear on the Lehrer Newshour, or whatever? How many women have enough spare time left over from their daily grind to go out and schmooze with editorial boards or well-connected politicos? Or to contribute to new tech-driven fora like “Bloggingheads,” or even just the regular old blogosphere? How many older male professionals systematically seek out women or “minority” colleagues to network with and support, rather than continuing to support fellow-scholars who look just like them? How many ambitious younger men use their sharp elbows and immense self-confidence simply to elbow women scholars of all ages out of the way?
So huge kudos to WFPG and the Carnegie Corporation for having pulled together such a great little conference here this week. But will their efforts contribute to a real and lasting enrichment of the public policy discourse in this country on the issues of vital concern between the US and the Muslim world?
Let’s wait and see. But the expertise is now, quite assuredly, there to be tapped.